Chernobyl Is Still a Mess Weeks After Russian Retreat

Worst-case scenarios were averted, but enormous risks remain
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 20, 2022 9:29 AM CDT
Chernobyl Is Still a Mess Weeks After Russian Retreat
Trenches and firing positions sit in the highly radioactive soil adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Chernobyl, April 16, 2022. Thousands of tanks and troops rumbled into the forested exclusion zone around the shuttered plant in the earliest hours of Russia’s invasion.   (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Ukrainian workers and state authorities are still recovering from the effects of Russian occupation in Chernobyl, one of the world’s most radioactive places. Even now, weeks after the Russians left, “I need to calm down," the plant’s main security engineer, Valerii Semenov, told the AP. He worked 35 days straight, sleeping only three hours a night, staying on even after the Russians allowed a shift change. Workers kept the Russians from the most dangerous areas, but in what Semenov called the worst situation he has seen in his 30 years at Chernobyl, the plant was without electricity, relying on diesel generators to support the critical work of circulating water for cooling the spent fuel rods.

Russia’s invasion marks the first time that occupying a nuclear plant was part of a nation's war strategy, said Rebecca Harms, former president of the Greens group in the European Parliament, who has visited Chernobyl several times. She called it a “nightmare” scenario in which “every nuclear plant can be used like a pre-installed nuclear bomb.” Now authorities are working with Ukraine’s defense ministry on ways to protect Chernobyl’s most critical places. At the top of the list are anti-drone systems and anti-tank barriers, along with a system to protect against warplanes and helicopters.

The full extent of Russia’s activities in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is still unknown, especially because the troops scattered mines that the Ukrainian military is still searching for. Some have detonated, further disturbing the radioactive ground where Russians dug extensive trenches. The Russians also set several forest fires, which have been extinguished. Ukrainian authorities cannot monitor radiation levels across the zone because Russian soldiers stole the main server for the system, severing the connection on March 2. The IAEA said Saturday it still wasn’t receiving remote data from its monitoring systems; however, authorities confirmed on Tuesday that the plant is now able to contact Ukraine’s nuclear regulator directly. Another Ukrainian nuclear plant, at Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, remains under Russian control. It is the largest in Europe. (More Chernobyl stories.)

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